If you are (or have ever considered being) vegetarian, vegan, or a more plant based diet as a gymnast, this blog post is for you! This post is an amazing guest post from Food for Fuel intern Jordan, and offers some great first hand experience as a vegetarian high-level athlete!
When considering plant-based diets, everyone seems to have their own definitions of what these terms mean and it can get pretty confusing. It is first important to understand the distinction between them. Vegetarian typically means that one does not eat animal meat (turkey, chicken, beef) or fish. A pescatarian will not eat meat but they do eat fish. A lacto-ovo vegetarian will still eat dairy products (like milk, cheese, or yogurt) and eggs. A vegan diet does not include any animal products - meat, fish and any animal products (eggs, dairy and cheese products). Lastly, a plant based/plant forward diet typically refers to someone who is making a conscious effort to eat less meat and animal products, but is not exclusive (someone can still eat meat while also trying to include more plants).
When I first decided to become a vegetarian, I cut out meat and fish from my diet immediately. I found that this was very restrictive and hard to maintain, and after just a couple of weeks I decided to no longer be a vegetarian. Instead I limited red meat, and found that this was much easier to maintain and and get the nutrients I needed. Making such an abrupt change without any planning was really difficult for me (and so many others).
When I felt that I was ready to try again (years later), I tried again to be a full vegetarian. Being vegetarian and an athlete is doable but it does take more planning and some special considerations, something I did not realize when I first tried to become a vegetarian. Looking back, I may have been more successful to slowly cut back on animal products from my diet over weeks and months, as well as do my research and consult with a Registered Dietitian about what nutrients I might be missing, and what special considerations a plant based athlete needs to take into account.
There are many reasons someone might want to eat less or no animal foods, including taste preference, ethical reasons, environmental reasons, or just wanted to reap the nutrition benefits of eating more plants. However, for high-level gymnasts, eliminating animal products (or any food group for that matter) can pose some challenges, including getting enough overall energy, protein, and certain micronutrients.
When considering the foods most vegetarians, vegans, and plant based diets limit or remove, most are high in protein (ex. chicken, beef, pork, fish, etc.). However, there are many plant based protein foods available. (When I first became a vegetarian I thought that I had to supplement my diet with protein shakes, because I was worried that I wasn’t getting enough protein, especially as an athlete). However, this is not the case. It is definitely possible to get enough protein from food sources, it just might take a little bit more planning and incorporating high-protein plant based recipes.
If you are looking for some plant based dinner recipes look here.
So what are some plant based protein sources?
Dairy Free Protein+ Milk (like Almond/Cashew Milk, Soy Milk, or Pea Protein Milk) and dairy alternatives (like dairy free protein yogurts)
Soy, Tofu, Tempeh, Edamame (and soy based products like veggie burgers)
Beans and bean based products (like hummus)
Nuts and nut butters
Seeds and seed butters
As someone not including many or any animal proteins, It is important to be aware of complete and incomplete proteins. Complete protein foods have all the essential amino acids that the body needs together in one food (complete protein sources are typically meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish, as well as soy). Incomplete protein sources (plant sources) do not have all of the essential amino acids together in one food. As a vegetarian athlete, it is important to combine foods (to form complementary proteins), to ensure you get the adequate amount of essential amino acids each day. By combining two or more foods to form complementary proteins you can then get a complete protein. For example, a burger is a complete protein but so are rice and beans. Or, a chicken cutlet is a complete protein but so is yogurt with nuts!
Iron is an essential nutrient that can be a challenge for an athlete not eating meat. Iron is a main component of hemoglobin, which is a main component of red blood cells. Without enough iron in the diet, there won’t be enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the, which leads to fatigue. You might notice that you are low on iron if you start to feel tired especially, and this can be confirmed by a blood test. Iron can be found from some plant sources including:
Leafy greens (spinach and kale)
Dried fruits (like apricots, figs, and raisins)
However, these plant based sources of iron are not as dense (meaning you will need to eat more) and are not as easily absorbed by the body. Pairing iron rich plant foods with vitamin c rich foods (like tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, and oranges) at a meal can help improve absorption.
However, iron compete for absorption in the body with calcium. If you are taking iron supplements or prioritizing iron rich foods at a meal or snack, look to avoid calcium supplements or high-calcium foods with that meal.
B12 is an essential nutrient with a role in red blood cell formation, cell metabolism, nerve function and the production of DNA. B12 is almost exclusively found in animal proteins like shellfish, beef, salmon, tuna, milk, and eggs. Some plant based sources of B12 include:
Fortified plant based milks (not all, make sure to check the label)
Fortified some meat alternatives
If you are a strict vegan or vegetarian who does not include dairy or eggs, you may need to talk with your doctor about a B12 supplement.
Calcium is a mineral required for bone growth, development, and maintenance, can help keep your bones strong, as well as supply the building blocks to repair any damage. The primary source of calcium come from traditional dairy foods, so if you are excluding milk, yogurt, and cheese, you will need to make including plant based sources calcium part of your fueling strategy. Plant based alternatives of calcium include:
Fortified orange juice
Fortified plant based milk alternatives
Leafy greens (like kale and collard greens)
As previously mentioned, calcium and iron compete for absorption in the body. If you are taking calcium supplements or prioritizing calcium rich foods at a meal or snack, look to avoid iron supplements or high-iron foods with that meal.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3s play many important roles in the body. For an athlete they are especially important because they promote recovery and help reduce inflammation. The most absorbable food to get Omega-3s are fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. If you are a pescatarian and you eat seafood, then you can still get your omega-3s from fish. However, if you are vegetarian or vegan (or just someone that does not eat seafood) it can be harder to ensure that you are getting enough omega 3s into your diet. Some plant based sources of Omega-3s include:
plant oils (like olive oil, and avocado oil)
Zinc is an important mineral that plays a role in healing as well as building cells and muscle tissues. Zinc is most commonly found in shellfish, beef, pork, and yogurt, which may make it challenging for vegetarians and vegans to get enough. Plant based sources of Zinc include:
With any diet change it is important to do some research and planning before going all in to make sure that you are not under consuming any of the important nutrients in your diet! If you are not prepared, it can be easy to underfuel. Before becoming vegetarian, vegan, or even plant based, it is certainly recommend to make sure that you are able to put in the time and planning to ensure that you are remaining well fueled with the diet change. For me, it was harder to become vegetarian the first time when I was in high school. I was still living at home and we always ate dinner as a family. My (poorly researched) solution was to just eliminate the meat from a lot of the meals we ate. The result was that I was not satisfied, and I was not getting enough nutrients in. When I left for college it was a lot easier to become more plant based as my school cafeterias were very good at providing plant based options, and I could also cook my meals myself.
When planning meals, an easy first step might be to slightly alter meals you are already familiar with. This is especially helpful when you are first starting out with a more plant based diet. Even my other family members who still eat meat were into making some small changes. For example if you do a taco or fajita night, swap the meat for beans or tofu/tempeh or lentils. Or if you are doing pasta instead of doing a meat sauce make your sauce with veggies and chickpeas. When taking meat out of meals you are used to eating just make sure that you're not forgetting about the protein and have a strategy to incorporate all the micronutrients!
Jordan is a masters level nutrition student and RD to be, and has been an intern with Food for Fuel during the Summer 2022. Jordan has been vegetarian for the last 6 years, including during college as a D1 diver and as a club gymnast in graduate school.